"That's not writing, that's typing." – Truman Capote dismissing Jack Kerouac's work
I have had asthma attacks all my life. I've them it since I was a kid only we called them bronchospasms back then because that's what the doctor said I was having and indeed bronchoconstriction is one of the most noticeable symptoms of asthma. It runs in the family but I've always suffered the worst. When I was young and didn't really understand the condition I used to have attacks constantly. My dad tried to make a list of what caused the attacks but it seemed like everything I did could bring on an attacks: laughing, crying, coming in out of the cold, going out into the cold, running, lying down… he gave up eventually.
Over the years I got better at managing my breathing. I started to realise that, if I didn’t panic, then even without medication I could control an attack. That said to this day I carry an inhaler with me at all times. Most of the time I don't need it. Most of the time simply knowing it's there prevents an attack but there is nothing worse than being caught out without it and finding you can't breathe.
(Note to new readers: He does this, don't fret about it. None of this has anything to do with writing but he will get his act together in a couple of paragraphs).
A wee while ago I was reading one of the what feels like hundreds of blogs I check daily when I chanced upon one by a young lady called Rebecca talking about what she referred to as "poetry attacks" – lovely expression. What she was on about, and I've been there, is being caught outside somewhere when your head starts to fill up with words and ideas and your beloved computer is five miles down the road hibernating or whatever computers do when you're not there. What can you do before, to use another of Rebecca's wonderful expressions, "complete total poetic meltdown" occurs?
There was a time – I know it's difficult for some people to imagine – when there were no computers, or, if there were any, they took up entire rooms and all they were useful for was calculating π to umpteen-thousand decimal places. I know – I was there.
And during that time there was a simple and elegant solution we writers used to use – a notebook. I have a collection in my office dating back 30 years, tatty things full of scribbles and unfinished poems and things I can't quite read any more.
My advice to Rebecca was: "Buy one. A good one. Take your time selecting it. Pick a nice small one and, if these things matter to you as much as me, a good pen, put them in your handbag or your coat pocket and never leave home without them."
What I'm talking about here is note-writing, getting the ideas out of your head to make room for new ones. And I'm very serious when I put it that way. My parents both told me that you can't do two things at the same time and, awkward wee bugger that I was, I'd go away and prove them wrong, at which point they would qualify their statement (i.e. move the goalposts): "What we meant was you can't do two things properly at the same time." Now that is true. If you're struggling to remember things it's much harder to think up new things. Get them out of your head as quickly as possible.
Poetry is incurable I'm afraid. Some people grow out of it but I was never one of them I'm afraid. I tried using a palmtop – I have an old Hewlett Packard HP620Lx (with a full keyboard) – but it's died a death besides it's not the kind of thing you can stick in your back pocket. Great for public transport mind. It rather depresses me that current models shy away from having a separate keyboard.
Of course, all of this started me thinking about writing in general.
I watched a repeat of Star Trek Deep Space Nine a few weeks ago (an episode called The Muse) where the character of Jake Sisko, an aspiring writer at this point in the series, meets his muse – literally - in the form of an alien energy-sucking vampire called Onaya who is capable of unlocking the potential of artists; the process has a rider though, it kills them although they achieve immortality through their art. One detail that struck me about the episode is that when Jake starts writing under her influence – on paper and with a fountain pen – his writing is actually quite beautiful and, for someone who spends all their time working on those daft computer pads they carry round all the time, this seemed unlikely.
Over the years my handwriting had disintegrated to the point I decided I'd have to do something about it. I bought a selection of fountain pens (mainly Osmiroids but I did have a matt black Sheaffer) and started to relearn how to write. In time my gothic hand got quite good but fast it was not. So, to speed up the process I began writing using a ruler (a very very expensive ruler) to keep the lines straight. Eventually I dispensed with the fountain pens – but not the ruler – and developed a modified gothic style. Without my ruler (actually now I have three of them) I'm afraid my writing is still untidy. Nowhere near as illegible a Beckett's but still pretty awful. Most of the time anyway, I can read it.
I imagine there are quite a few younger writers out there who have never thought to try and write longhand. For starters there's the matter of transcribing what you've written onto the PC. I'm sure it seems like a non-starter. I expect more poets might be inclined to pick up a pad and scribble away on it. There's not much work in transcribing a poem.
Louis de Bernières (author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin) has said, "I still believe that you can't write poems on computer; you must write poems longhand. There's something antithetical to the poetic spirit about computers." I'm not sure that I agree. Strangely enough the last batch of poems I've written have all be straight onto the computer – usually the laptop I keep in the living room – but this is a new thing for me.
I've never romanticised computers. They've never been more than a tool. Perhaps that is what de Bernières is on about here. I have an emotional attachment to many of my pens, especially my dad's Parker, but I've never wept buckets when I've had to upgrade my PC.
Taking into account what Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Strand has to say I think I might get it though:
Well, I think, when I write, I try to resist reading my poems as long as possible, and type seems too final. While I'm writing longhand, I'm under the illusion that I'm hearing the poem. Type seems almost like print, and you're fooled into thinking – or I'm often fooled into thinking – a poem is done before it's actually done, if I see it in print.
Poems are one thing but what about writing an entire novel by hand?
Joyce Carol Oates deliberately practiced as a college student by writing a novel in longhand, then turning the pages over, writing another novel on the flipside. Both novels were then tossed in the trash. Since high school she began "consciously training myself by writing novel after novel and always throwing them out when I completed them" – Women writers at work: The Paris Review interviews
She's not the only novelist to work longhand.
Novelist Peter Quinn, writes all of his books in longhand, on yellow legal pads. The murder mystery-writing nun Sister Carol Anne O'Marie writes long-hand in a green Naugahyde easy chair across the bay from San Francisco. Neil Simon wrote his plays longhand using a fountain pen and extra long legal pads, all of which he brought back from England. He said he simply never got on with typewriters, word processors, PCs; he felt technology hindered the creative aspect of writing. Mary Gordon does her writing longhand with a vintage Waterman pen. Neal Stephenson said: "The manuscript of The Baroque Cycle was written by hand on 100% cotton paper using three different fountain pens: a Waterman Gentleman, a Rotring, and a Jorg Hysek."
I'm writing my novel with two different fountain pens (a Lamy 2000, and a regular Lamy) filled with two different coloured inks (a greenish one and a reddish one), and I'm alternating pens each day, which means I can see at a glance how much writing I've actually done that day, or that week. More than five pages in the same colour of ink must have been a good day. The Lamy 2000 days are my favourites because the regular Lamy, although a good pen for signing in, is less happy writing a novel, and handwriting like mine needs all the help it can get.
One reason I like writing by hand is it slows me down a little, but it also forces me to keep going: I'm never going to spend half a day noodling with a sentence to try and get it just right, if I'm using a pen. I'll do all that when I start typing.
I come by the fountain pen thing genetically. My mother's been using fountain pens all my life, and I started with them in high school. And they are, unmistakably, a superior creature. I spend hours every day writing – long-hand and keyboard – and at one point I did nearly all of my fiction writing and poetry longhand. Back in the dim mists of history, lo, when I didn't even own a word processor. – They Must Need Bears
Novelist Anita Nair has similar thoughts:
It's not that I can't write straightaway on the computer, but I like going through the ritual of writing. The pen and paper gives you a time lag to deliberate. Writing is a sensual experience and the sensuality is lost on the machine. It may be a sentimental notion but writing becomes less romantic and more of a chore. – The Hindu
One student writer reported: 'Maybe I'm too far away with the computer. I mean the screen is there, and I'm here. With a pencil and paper I'm touching the words. I know Nabokov was fond of pencils, and I have used them, but I much prefer a good pen. I wrote about half of my last novel using the Cross fountain pen that my daughter bought me. It uses non-standard cartridges so I tend to run out and I have to go into Glasgow town centre to buy more but it does have a lovely feel to it. I would write a block, usually no more than a couple of pages, and then type it up – editing as I went as is my wont – and then I'd usually keep on writing on the PC until I dried up. And I just kept on going that way till the book was finished. Pocket notebooks are for emergencies only. I don't much care what I use when I'm writing in them.
Here's a dour wee poem I wrote a while back about trying to write with a pencil:
Dead words on a page
sitting side by side by side
black and twisted
the tombs of truths.
You can rub them out.
They know nothing.
There's no sense in death
precious little in living.
for an instant
as it falls into
its shallow grave.
24 February 2007
I liked the idea of the indent the pencil makes in the paper being like a shallow grave. I have to say I was feeling quite negative about the whole writing process at this time. Interestingly I think I wrote it straight onto my PC.
There are other arguments of course for writing longhand. Consider this from the Washington Post talking about the fact that writing is losing ground to typing:
The loss of handwriting also may be a cognitive opportunity missed. The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one. Several academic studies have found that good handwriting skills at a young age can help children express their thoughts better…
In one of the studies, Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who studies the acquisition of writing, experimented with a group of first-graders in Prince George's County who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex. He also found corresponding increases in their sentence construction skills.
Things are changing. William G. Sharp and David S. Hargrove from the Department of Psychology at The University of Mississippi, hypothesised that writing longhand and typing about a stressful experience were equivalent in terms of emotional arousal and essay content. This is what they discovered:
168 college students were randomly assigned to describe either a neutral or emotional topic by typing or writing longhand, in a 2×2 factorial design. Compared with students in the neutral conditions, students instructed to describe an emotional topic reported greater negative affect following the writing task and produced essays that contained significantly more personal and psychological content. Consistent with the hypothesis, participants writing longhand and typing were equivalent in the direction and degree of this difference. These findings suggest that at least a portion of the population (i.e. college students) is now comfortable and/or adept in expressing themselves emotionally on a computer. – Emotional expression and modality: an analysis of affective arousal and linguistic output in a computer vs. paper paradigm
The arguments for using pens, as stated by King and others, tend to focus on slowing down the writing process. Since I actually write quite slowly anyway I can't really comment on this. I think the main reason for this is my gestation period is so long. I think about what I'm going to write. And then I think about it some more. Then a bit more. And then I sit down and write and it doesn't really matter where or what with. I don't know. But that's just me.
There's an interesting post, The Surprising Process of Writing, which, although it deals with school papers makes some valid points about how the quality of typed essays is improving:
With substantial practice at the keyboard, I do believe that students are can become more “fluent” at writing and produce a product as creative as that produced by handwriting. In fact, studies often show that students do as well on a computer than they do handwriting compositions.
I know, I know, progress marches on but I do think that the tactile quality of writing is something every writer should experience. There is a fascinating article by Dr Daniel Chandler called The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand which I would recommend you have a look at when you have a quiet moment but I'd like to highlight this quote from Wendell Berry:
I am not going to use a computer because I don't want to deny myself the pleasure of bodily involvement in my work. In using computers writers are flirting with a radical separation of mind and body, the elimination of the work of the body from the work of the mind. The text on the computer screen, and the computer printout too, has a sterile, untouched, factory made look... The body does not do work like that. The body characterizes everything it touches. What it makes it traces over with the marks of its pulses and breathings, its excitements, hesitations, flaws and mistakes... And to those of us who love and honour the life of the body in this world, these marks are precious things, necessities of life.
The article mentions that it was very important for Rilke to send a copy of the finished poem in his beautiful hand to somebody, because that was the poem, not the printed imitation. I've always thought that was something writing had over art, that we could give away our work and still retain it. I'm not so sure now.